Weep with songs of sadness

Posted on: 3 April 2020, by :

Vox Luminis, performing in Auxi-le-Château in 2012.

In these days and weeks many people are weeping, especially from heartbreak over the loss of loved ones, friends and colleagues as the COVID-19 epidemic increasingly takes many lives in many countries — in many cases lives cut short in their prime and before their time. For each family, separated from the person who is dying and unable to arrange a normal funeral, it is grief compounded with frustration and helplessness. And the rest of us are moved to tears ourselves by the deaths of doctors and other healthcare staff and the tearful pleas of exhausted and despairing nurses who, without adequate supplies of protective equipment and proper testing, fear for their own safety while still following the hard duty of their calling. These are tears tinged with anger and bitterness — over the failures in some countries of weak or incompetent leadership, rash and ill-informed decisions, the dissembling and blaming of others, and arguments that seek to prioritize economic protection by imperilling and sacrificing the innocent.

A similarly complex emotional response — uncomfortably mixed feelings, with uncertainty over who is to blame, how to weep and what exactly we are weeping about — is provoked in ‘Plorate filii Israel’ for six voices, performed in the two videos here. This is the final passage in the Historia di Jepthe, a drama set to music by Giacomo Carissimi for church performance in Rome, probably in the 1640s. The oratorio’s Latin text elaborates upon the story told in Judges 11:29-40, in which Jephthah, the leader of the Israelites, makes a rash and ill-considered bargain with God, with the consequence that his innocent daughter, his only child, pays the price for his decisions with her life. She is blameless, yet is blamed; ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me,’ says Jephthah on realizing that he must make her the sacrifice he promised. According to the all-too-concise Biblical account, she is faithful and dutifully does not resist, asking only for a little time to lament that she will die a virgin. But the music of the oratorio delves further and deeper: the daughter rails with frustration against the anguish of losing her life before her time and in abnormal circumstances, weeping with bitterness as well as sadness.

Ensemble Marguerite Louise, performing in 2019.

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The daughter’s lament is sung at the beginning of these video extracts, before the concluding ‘Plorate filii Israel’. A version of ‘Plorate filii Israel’ with its score is available here, and a translation of the Latin text is below.

Plorate filii Israel,
plorate omnes virgines,
et filiam Jephte unigenitam
in carmine doloris lamentamini.

Weep, you children of Israel!
Weep, all you maidens!
And lament for Jephthah’s only daughter
with songs of sadness.